• The Good: Strong personal story of finding the world outside of technology
  • The Bad: Title doesn’t describe it’s contents; Geared for young city dwellers who already live in nice communities
  • The Literary: Chapter quotes; lots of historical, literary, and art references

Technology is all around us, filling our daily lives to the brim, and we’re often available 24/7. There’s a lot going on, whether it be work or play or some combination of both, and it usually involves some form of staying connected with the news, followers and friends, but more than that, constantly putting one’s own images or thoughts into the void of social media. How to Do Nothing is a meaningful meditation on not only resisting the attention economy, but transferring that attention elsewhere.

The title of the book is a poor choice for this work, but it turns out I like the message even more. I initially expected this to be treatise on turning off notifications, setting screen rules, and taking weekend breaks from social media, but this is so much more. This isn’t a specific how-to action plan; it’s an exploration of how much there is to explore outside in public spaces, connecting with community, and learning about local history and bio-regionalism.

Sure, there is talk about actually doing nothing, but for the ultimate purpose of noticing what’s already there. Take 15 minutes and just listen. Notice as many sounds as possible: the hum of the air conditioner or other appliances, the chirping of birds, dogs barking, cars driving by or a plane flying overhead, the wind rustling  the trees, your own breathing.

But if you’re that burnt out, you might be considering dropping out altogether, quitting your job, moving to the country, starting over with a blank slate. Odell explores the Epicurian state, science fiction utopias, communes in the 20th century, and expensive weekend retreats into nature in the 21st. These “escapes” are never sustainable, not to mention only available to the highly privileged. Refusal of society as a whole, or even just its rules, is a luxury for those who can personally afford the consequences.

So what’s the happy medium? How do you resist the attention economy? Odell shares her own path and definitions of what “doing nothing” means for her. By disengaging she gave herself time to think and, eventually, do something else. She encourages exploration of music and art, but also apps, including a visual training app called ULTIMEYES and the California Academy of Science’s app iNaturalist to identify plants and animals in your own backyard. The more you listen and notice bird calls in your backyard, the more you’ll hear distinct differences between species, whether they are active at certain times of the day or the year. Close attention reveals new worlds of subtlety.

The noticing doesn’t stop there. Even if you live in an uninteresting suburb with strip malls, there is a history to the place you reside. A history of ecology and politics, of class and race. Whereas the news and social media strive to keep you anxious about the present, this book is an antidote for someone who has the leisure to read a book about someone else’s personal journey, visit art museums, walk through parks, petition their local government for change, and attend protests.

Cited books/movies I will be following up on:

  • Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, a book which explores how people are not desperate or selfish after disasters.
  • Walden Two: a famous Utopian novel based on the principle that human behavior can be manipulated .
  • Blindspotting: a film exploring race and the gentrification of Oakland.
  • Braiding Sweetgrass: in which a Potawatomi botanist encourages our human relationship with plants.